It was back in the early 1980s. I saw a few small posters–just 8 ½ X 11 sheets–advertising a piano recital in Woodstock by somebody I had never heard of named Morey Hall. He was playing at the Kleinert Gallery, the most prestigious year-round concert venue in Woodstock. But I saw so little publicity for this concert that I suspected he had just hired the place.

I was already writing classical music reviews for the Woodstock Times, and I could have tried to get in touch with someone to get free tickets. But I had an uncertain feeling about this event. So I decided to go and buy my ticket, and if Hall was surprisingly good, I would write about him. My girlfriend Anne and her son Greg, both musicians, went with me.

When we got there, about 15 minutes before concert time, we found two people who had obviously come with Hall, taking money. Nobody else was there. By concert time, two more people had drifted in. So the concert started with seven people in the audience.

The program begin with a baroque suite by the obscure composer Domenico Zipoli. Within seconds it became apparent that Hall couldn’t play worth a damn. The music was quite simple, but even at his cautious tempos he halted and fumbled and made a mess out of everything. The rest of the first half of the program was Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12, music written for a virtuoso pianist. Hall played through the more difficult pieces at around half their proper tempo, but still continued to fumble. It was really painful.

At intermission, Greg and Anne and I went outside so Anne could have a cigarette. As she smoked, I asked the dreaded question: “Are we going back in there?”

“We can’t leave now,” said Anne. “We’re almost half his audience!”

“I know,” I said, “but do we want to hear what he is going to do to Schubert?”

“Right,” said Greg. We left.

This performance was a “tryout” for a recital Hall was about to give at the Albany Institute of History and Art, an institution I have regarded with the greatest suspicion since I heard Hall. My friend Rich Capparela was working at a radio station in Schenectady and living nearby, so I did my best to trick him into going to the concert. He couldn’t make it, but he did some investigation and learned that Hall was studying with Findlay Cockrell, one of the best pianists in the area. He heard that Cockrell had once told Hall not to come for any more lessons, and that Hall had camped out on Cockrell’s front lawn until Cockrell relented.

That was my last thought of Morey Hall until about ten years ago, when I met Cockrell at a recital. A mutual friend introduced us. “Oh, yes,” I said, “the teacher of Morey Hall.” Cockrell looked daggers at me until I started to laugh.

After I explained that I had heard Hall and that he had my full sympathy, Cockrell told me a story about Hall. Through Christian Science circles, Hall arranged an invitation to play for the great pianist Malcolm Frager, who lived less than an hour away from him. Frager listened to Hall play his entire concert, and then said, “Good. Now go home and don’t ever play the piano again.”

There are two aspects of this story that interested me greatly. One was that I had met Frager and found him a very kind man. The other was that Cockrell knew of the incident. There was no way he could have learned it unless Hall had told him.

Hall was a horrible musician, but the worst classical music performer I ever heard was William F. Buckley, Jr. Yes, that William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley studied the harpsichord for years with the great harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, and he wrote an article about his studies which I read somewhere, probably in the New York Times Magazine. Buckley had become acquainted with Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, and had invited Botstein to be a guest on his TV show “Firing Line.” Botstein, in return, invited Buckley to perform with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, which he had created and of which he was music director.

Buckley’s participation in the program was curious indeed. He was scheduled to play Bach’s solo “Chromatic Fantasy” (but not the difficult fugue which follows it), then the second and first (of three) movements of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, in that order. This, I thought, is someone very much aware of his own limitations.

But I was wrong. Buckley couldn’t come close to playing even the easier music he had selected. During the “Chromatic Fantasy,” there were long stretches of the piece in which he played more wrong notes than correct ones. In the Concerto, the orchestra covered some of the musical transgressions–especially since Botstein, highly inept himself at this early stage of his conducting career, had no idea of how to balance an orchestra with the quiet harpsichord. But you could still hear enough to tell it was a disaster. I was amused to see Buckley moving his head closer to the music and squinting as if somehow seeing the notes more clearly would help him play them. It’s a gesture I’d often seen in children’s piano recitals.

Whenever I hear a musical performance I’m not fond of, I think back on these events and sigh.

6 Responses to “The Worst Musicians I Ever Heard”

  1. John Says:

    Leslie – Interesting tale, about the worst musicians. Just wondered – any opinions about the BEST, incl. Feuermann, Schnabel and others? A while back, you furnished LP reissues of the latter, plus some, other WORTHIES. Anyway, thanks for the blog, and hope you’re “doin'” well, these days.

  2. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Well, my list of “best musicians” might be quite long. Let me just stick to some of the best I heard in person. Sviatoslav Richter (supreme!) Other pianists: Jacob Lateiner (also a friend, but listening to the two-CD memorial set of his concerts I issued on the Parnassus label should convince almost anyone), Ivan Moravec, Dubravka Tomsic, Radu Lupu, Artur Rubinstein (heard once in my youth). Violinists: David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Rachel Barton Pine. Heard Heifetz once but never loved him. Cellists: my cousin Janos Starker is my favorite. (Feuermann was his favorite.) Conductors: Jascha Horenstein (heard once, 1969, unforgettable), Klaus Tennstedt (luckily heard many times). No doubt I’m leaving some out. From the past I’d add Schnabel, Szigeti, Vladimir de Pachmann, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, and on and on.

  3. Andrew F Says:

    I find that very hard to believe about Malcolm Frager. Maybe that was the interpretation Hall came away with, but it certainly would not have been said like that. I knew Malcolm very well.

  4. Leslie Gerber Says:

    You certainly could be right about the wording. I heard this story from Findlay Cockrell, who obviously was relating what he heard from Morey Hall. And I was so struck by the comment because, while I didn’t know Frager well, I had spent an afternoon with him and found him a very kind and generous person.
    On the other hand, you never heard Morey Hall play. I did. His playing might have been enough to make a kind person turn snide.

  5. Hector Says:

    This wouldn’t be the same Morey Hall would it?

  6. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Same guy.